Greenpoint Oil Spill: A Brief History

Brooklyn, N.Y. offers a variety of cultural pitstops for any looking to take in America's history. However, beneath the city lies an insidious landmark that may catch even the most experienced New Yorker by surprise -- a large plume of oil that is considered to be one of the largest spills in U.S. history. 

For more than 60 years, those millions of gallons of fossil fuel have been entangled in political and legislative brawls that have left much of the oil product uncollected and unstudied. 

Now, a recent court case has held some to be financially accountable for the mess, but unanswered concerns about health risks leave the real cost of the disaster currently unknown. 

Start with a bang

Officials knew of the spill since 1950, when a underground explosion prompted an investigation of the area’s sewers. Gasoline and sewers don’t mix, it seems, and when the chemicals collided, it sent a tremor that blew at least 25 manhole covers into the air

The cause of the blast -- most likely a leak from one of the nearby refineries -- went unexamined. It was clear that something was wrong, as reports of gasoline vapors were detected in Greenpoint's air throughout the 1950s, '60s and '70s. 

But it wasn’t until 1978, after a Coast Guard Helicopter noticed Newtown Creek’s oily sheen, that the spill was given administrative attention.  

Tests and studies were immediately launched, revealing an underground plume of oil and petroleum products. Initial calculations put the amount around 17 million gallons, but the EPA estimated it could be closer to 30 million gallons. 

Who done it?

The area around the Greenpoint oil spill had been used by a variety of oil companies for decades. However, when the initial investigation was carried out by Geraghty & Miller, a groundwater investigation firm, one major contributor was labeled: Exxon Mobil. 

Refineries around the area were acquired by Mobil Oil throughout the first half of the 20th century, including one of Standard Oil's first refineries. Eventually, Mobil and Exxon would join, inheriting the refineries responsible for the spill. 

Although it joined cleanup efforts with Amoco Oil Co. through the Meeker Avenue Task Force in 1979, Exxon Mobil shied away from accepting responsibility. 

Company spokeswoman Carole Edwards told Newsday:

"It would seem to us ... we perceive ourselves as being a possible contributor to the [oil] pool. The fact there are other members of the task force is an indication not only we but other parties have concluded we are not the only contributors to the pool."

At one point, Exxon Mobil claimed that the oil had Amoco’s signature blue-whitener dye, however independent scientists could not verify the company’s claims. 

Although participating and financially contributing to the area's recovery, Exxon Mobil's stance has remained largely unchanged. In a 2007 interview with New York Magazine, Exxon Mobil's lawyer Peter Sacripanti said determining responsibility is impossible. 

“A century ago, no one monitored releases or oil spills. So no one really knows where this oil came from," he said. 

However, according to that 1979 study from Geraghty & Miller, it's all a matter of calculation. Based on the lay of the land, there is one oil terminal that would be most likely to have contributed the most to the spill. And when the terminal started leaking -- by all estimates, in 1949 -- it wasn't owned by Amoco, but by Mobil. 

See no evil

Cleanup actions by the Task Force took place began in 1979, but at a slow rate. Only 10 percent of the oil was recovered by 1988, causing community members and environmentalists to become increasingly concerned about health and ecological risks. 

Government officials didn't seem concerned at the time.

"It has been there for more than 40 years," said Tom Quinn, the state's oil spill director, told Newsday. "At this point, if it hasn't moved or manifested any effect, I would question whether it is a priority to remove it. Until there is more reason to get involved, the [state Department of Environmental Conservation] won't get involved."

Two years later, New York state officials struck an agreement with Exxon Mobil. They required the company to recover the oil but provided no enforceable deadlines or specific cleanup requirements.

In 2002, environmental organization Riverkeeper organized and pursued legal action against Exxon Mobil. They would later combine their lawsuit with two others -- by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, respectively -- that alleged similar claims. 

Cuomo became an outspoken proponent of Greenpoint's vindication, saying that the company had no excuse to keep the spill neglected for that long. 

“It’s amazing this situation has gone on as long as it has,” Cuomo told the New York Times.

Meanwhile, many voiced concerns over health risks and a disproportionately high cancer rate. Carol O'Neill, who spent most of her life living near the spill, told the New York Times about how the tangy smell of gasoline permiated the air when she was a child and often wonders what effects it may have caused.

"To hear that it could be causing illness, that's disturbing," she said. "I know 10 people off the top of my head who died of cancer."

One health study commissioned by Basil Seggos, the chief investigator for Riverkeeper, showed dangerous levels of methane gas and benzene, a carcinogen. 

The EPA released a report on the Greenpoint Oil Spill in 2007. Although maintaining that it does not perform health effects studies, the EPA echoed the risk of possible vapor intrusion from the plume's leaked fumes. 

Finally, in 2010, Exxon agreed to settle. The oil company will pay $25 million and execute additional cleanup actions around the area of the spill, including restoration of soil and groundwater. According to CNN, the most recent estimates state that 14 million gallons still remain under the city.